rilke helpfully itemizes just what all goes into the writing of a poem


… Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) — they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you have long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn’t pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else — ); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars, — and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves — only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

—from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

maurice blanchot on authorial anxiety and the inevitability of writing

Maurice Blanchot conceives of the author’s relation to the book as one of incomprehension, inevitable alienation, and ultimate failure: hence the ongoing need to repeat, to write yet again.  




lt seems we have learned something about art when we experience what the word solitude designates. This word has been tossed around much too freely. Yet what does it mean to “be alone”? When is one alone? As we ask ourselves this question’ we should not simply return to thoughts that we find moving. Solitude on the level of the world is a wound we do not need to comment on here.


Nor do we have in mind the solitude of the artist, the solitude which he is said to need if he is to practice his art. When Rilke writes to the Comtesse de Solms-Laubach (August 3, 1907): “Except for two short interruptions, I have not pronounced a single word for weeks; at last my solitude has closed in and I am in my work like a pit in its fruit,”‘ the solitude he speaks of is not essentially solitude: it is self-communion.


The Solitude of the Work


In the solitude of the work — the work of art, the literary work — we see a more essential solitude. It excludes the self-satisfied isolation of individualism, it is unacquainted with the search for difference; it is not dissipated by the fact of sustaining a virile relationship in a task that covers the mastered extent of the day. The person who is writing the work is thrust to one side, the person who has written the work is dismissed. What is more, the person who is dismissed does not know it. This ignorance saves him, diverts him and allows him to go on. The writer never knows if the work is done. What he has finished in one book, he begins again or destroys in another. Valéry, who celebrates this privilege of the infinite in the work, still sees only its easiest aspect: the fact that the work is infinite means (to him) that although the artist is not capable of ending it, he is nevertheless capable of turning it into the enclosed space of an endless task whose incompleteness develops mastery of the spirit, expresses that mastery, expresses it by developing it in the form of power. At a certain point, circumstances — that is, history — in the form of an editor, financial demands, social duties, pronounce the missing end and the artist, freed by a purely compulsory outcome, pursues the incomplete elsewhere.


According to this point of view, the infinity of the work is simply the infinity of the spirit. The spirit tries to accomplish itself in a single work, instead of realizing itself in the infinity of works and the movement of history. But Valéry was in no way a hero. He chose to talk about everything, to write about everything: thus, the scattered whole of the world diverted him from the rigor of the unique whole of the work — he amiably allowed himself to be turned away from it. The etc. was hiding behind the diversity of thoughts, of subjects.


Nevertheless, the work — the work of art, the literary work — is neither finished nor unfinished: it is. What it says is exclusively that: that it is — and nothing more. Outside of that, it is nothing. Anyone who tries to make it express more finds nothing, finds that it expresses nothing. Anyone who lives in dependence on the work, whether because he is writing it or reading it, belongs to the solitude of something that expresses only the word being: a word that the language protects by hiding it or that the language causes to appear by is appearing into the silent void of the work.


The first framework of the solitude of the work is this absence of need which never permits it to be called finished or unfinished. The work can have no proof, just as it can have no use. It cannot be verified — truth can lay hold of it, renown illuminate it: this existence concerns it not at all, this obviousness makes it neither certain nor real, nor does it make it manifest.


The work is solitary in that does not mean that it remains incommunicable, that it lacks a reader. But the person who reads it enters into that affirmation of the solitude of the work, just as the one who writes it belongs to the risk of that solitude.


The Work, The Book


If we want to examine more closely what such statements suggest, perhaps we should look for their source. The writer writes a book, but the book is not yet the work, the work is not a work until the word being is pronounced in it, in the violence of a beginning which is its own; this event occurs when the work is the innermost part of someone writing it and of someone reading it. We can therefore ask ourselves this: if solitude is the writer’s risk,  doesn’t it express the fact that he is turned, oriented towards the open violence of the work, never grasping more than its substitute, its approach, and its illusion in the form of the book? The writer belongs to the work, but what belongs to him is only a book, a mute accumulation of sterile words, the most meaningless thing in the world. The writer who  experiences this void simply believes that the work is unfinished, and he believes that with a little more effort and the luck of some favorable moments, he — and only he — will be able to finish it. And so he sets back to work. But what he wants to finish, by himself, remains something interminable, it ties him to an illusory labor. And in the end, the work ignores him, it closes on his absence, in the impersonal, anonymous statement that it is-and nothing more. Which we express by remarking that the artist, who only finishes his work at the moment he dies, never knows his work. And we may have to reverse that remark, because isn’t the writer dead as soon as the work exists, as he himself sometimes foresees, when he experiences a very strange kind of worklessness.*


* This is not the situation of the man who works and accomplishes his task and whose task escapes him by transforming itself in the world. What this man makes is transformed, but in the world, and he recaptures it through the world, at least if he can recapture it, if alienation is not immobilized, if it is not diverted to the advantage of a few, but continues until the completion of the world. On the contrary, what the writer has in view is the work, and what he writes is a book. The book, as such, can become an active event in the world (an action, however, that is always reserved and insufficient), but it is not action the artist has in view, but the work, and what makes the book a substitute for the work is enough to make it a thing that, like the work, does not arise from the truth of the world; and it is an almost frivolous thing, if it has neither the reality of the work nor the seriousness of real labor in the world.



—from The Gaze of Orpheus and other Literary Essays, ed. P. Adams Sitney. Translated by Lydia Davis (1981). Originally published in Blanchot’s  L’Espace littéraire (1955).


clive james on poetic memory: “rilke was a prick”


Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel. On the periphery, names and attributes of real people have been changed and shuffled so as to render identification impossible. Nearer the centre, important characters have been run through the scrambler or else left out completely. So really the whole affair is a figment got up to sound like truth. All you can be sure of is one thing: careful as I have been to spare other people’s feelings, I have been even more careful not to spare my own. Up, that is, of course, to a point.

Sick of being a prisoner of my childhood, I want to put it behind me. To do that, I have to remember what it was like. I hope I can dredge it all up again without sounding too pompous. Solemnity, I am well aware, is not my best vein. Yet it can’t be denied that books like this are written to satisfy a confessional urge; that the main-spring of a confessional urge is guilt; and that somewhere underneath the guilt there must be a crime. In my case I suspect there are a thousand crimes, which until now I have mainly been successful in not recollecting. Rilke used to say that no poet would mind going to gaol, since he would at least have time to explore the treasure house of his memory. In many respects Rilke was a prick. 

—from the preface to Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs (1980)

a recent translation of heidegger on “the poets of the desolate”—rilke and hölderlin

"where the poet belongs in the destiny of the world’s night . . ."

like you, i recall how my teacher in my german-language kindergarten would often quote this famous passage of herder’s, that dreary proto-champion of the teutonic volk:



Herder writes in his Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (Samtliche Werke, ed. Suphan, vol. XIII, p. 355):


A breath of our mouth is the picture of the world, the type of our thoughts and feelings in the soul of another. Every human thing that man has ever thought, willed, done, and will do upon earth has depended on the movement of a bit of air; for we would all still be wanderers in the woods if this divine breath had not inspired us and hovered on our lips like a charm.


The breath by which those who risk more risk more does not only or primarily mean the hardly noticeable (because fleeting) measure of a difference; rather, it signifies directly the word and the essence of language. The ones who by a breath risk more risk it with language. They are the saying ones who are saying more. For this one bread by which they risk more is not just saying in general;rather, the one breath is an other breath, a saying other than what human saying usually is. The other breath no longer solicits for this or that objective thing; it is a breath for nothing. The saying of the singer says the integral entirety of worldly existence that grants its space invisibly in the world inner space of the heart. Song does not even pursue first what is to be said. Song is the belonging in the entirety of the pure attraction. To sing is drawn [gezogen] from the draft [Zag] of the wind of the unheard center of full Nature. Song is itself: "A wind."


So, then, the poem in its poetry does after all unambiguously say who they are who risk more than life itself does. They are the ones who "by a breath risk more." There is a point to the ellipsis that follows in the text of the poem after "by a breath risk more." It says what is silently withheld.


Those who risk more are the poets, but poets whose song turns our defenselessness into the open. Because they reverse the departure against the open and inwardly remember its unwholeness [Heil-loses] into the integral [heile] whole, these poets sing the integral in disintegration [im Unhezlen das Heile]. The remembering reversal that is made inward has already overtaken the turning away against the open. It is "ahead of all departuren” and surmounts, in the world inner space of the heart, everything objective. The reversing inward remembrance is the risk that is dared out of the essence of man in that he has language and is the one that says.


Modern man, however, is called the one who wills. The ones who risk more are the ones who will more, in that they will in another mode than the deliberative self-assertion of the objectification of the world. Their willing wills nothing of this nature. If will remains only self-assertion, they will nothing. They will nothing in this sense because they are more willing. They comply rather with the will which, as the risk itself, draws all the pure forces unto itself as the pure whole attraction of the open. The willing of those who risk more is the willingness of those who say more, who are resolute [ent-schlossen], no longer shut [verschlossen] in departure against the will by which being wills beings. The willing essence of those who risk more says more sayingly (in the words of the Ninth Elegy):


Earth, isn’t it this your will: invisibly

to rise within us? — Isn’t it your dream

to be invisible one day? — Earth! invisible!

What, if not transformation, is your urgent mission?

Earth, dear one, I will.


In the invisibility of world inner space, as the unity of which the angel appears, the wholeness of worldly beings becomes evident. Only in the widest compass of the whole is the holy able to appear. Because they experience unwholeness as such, poets of the kind who risk more are underway on the track of the holy. Their song sanctifies over the land. Their song celebrates the unbrokenness of the globe of being.


The unwhole, as the unwhole, traces for us what is whole. What is whole beckons and calls to the holy. The holy binds the divine. The divine brings God closer.


Those who risk more experience defenselessness in unwholeness. They bring mortals the track of the fugitive gods in the darkness of the world’s night. Those who risk more, as singers of what is whole, are "poets in a desolate time."


The distinctive mark of these poets consists in the fact that for them the essence of poetry has become worth questioning, since they are poetically on the track of that which, for them, is to be said. On the track to what is whole, Rilke arrives at the poetical question: when may song be that sings essentially? This question does not stand at the beginning of the poetic path, but rather at the point where Rilke’s saying arrives at the poetic vocation of the poetry that answers to the coming world-era. This era is neither decay nor decline. As destiny it lies in being and lays claim to man.


Hölderlin is the forerunner of the poets in a desolate time. That is why no poet of this era can overtake him. The forerunner, however, does not go away into a future, rather he arrives from it in such a way that in the advent [Ankunf] of his words alone the future [Zukunf] presences. The more purely the advent takes place, the more essentially, the more essenced, it remains.


The more what is coming is secretly conserved in the foretelling, the purer the arrival. That is why it would be erroneous to say that Hölderlin’s time would come only when "everyone" understands his poetry. It will never come in such a deformed way. Its own desolation is what puts at the disposal of the era the forces by which, knowing not what it is doing, the era prevents Hölderlin’s poetry from becoming timely. The forerunner [Erganger] can as little be overtaken as he can pass away [verganglich ist], for his poetry remains as something that has been in an essential way [Ge-wesenes]. What essences [das Wesende] in the advent gathers itself back into destiny. What does not fall into the course of passing away [Zrgehen] overcomes at the start all that is transient [Verganglichkeit]. What has merely passed away is already, in advance of its passing away, without destiny. What has been in an essential way, by contrast, is the destining. In what we suppose is eternity, something merely transitory [Vergiingliches] has been concealed, put away into the void of a now without duration.


If Rilke is a "poet in a desolate time," then only his poetry will answer the question why he is a poet, what it is his song is underway to, where the poet belongs in the destiny of the world’s night. This destiny will decide the question of what within his poetry remains destining.